(This post spun off from the last, where I concluded by noting the increasing amount of debris out in the upper atmosphere. Somehow I couldn’t resist pulling that image into the vortex of ecopolitics and the objects-relations debate, which is carrying on at hyper tiling, Object-Oriented Philosophy, Larval Subjects, and elsewhere.)
Like the tail of a dog who, in his immersed excitedness at any signs of life, notices movement behind himself and lurches back to catch it, humanity’s material ecologies are wagging behind us in various ways: from reports of melting glaciers and impending crashes of the ocean’s fish stocks to images of the Pacific Trash Vortex, space junk accumulating in the atmosphere (anyone remember the rains of space debris on Max Headroom?), the mountains of e-waste accumulating around the world (which, in our future history, take over the terrestrial landscape around the time of Wall-E), and the repositories of toxic and radioactive waste that dot the landscape all around us, though we rarely see or think about them. Sooner or later, the trash will hit the fan, somewhere at least, if not everywhere at once.
Our social ecologies work the same way, with “blowback” to social injustice arriving in the form of terrorism and other forms of political violence. If, as I’ve argued before, it’s better to think in threes than in twos — with our material ecologies (“nature”) and social ecologies (“culture”) supplemented and filled in with mental or perceptual ecologies, the actual interactive dynamics out of which the material and the social, or the “objective” and the “subjective,” continually emerge — then what is blowback in the perceptual dimension?
That’s easy: it’s guilt, bad dreams, and the other affective undercurrents that plague our “unconscious.” These are our responses to the eyes of the world (human and nonhuman). It’s what makes us feel that things aren’t right. It’s the traumatic kernel of the Real, which Lacan (and, somewhat differently, Buddhism) place at the origin of the self, but which in a collective sense is coming back to haunt us globally. (I’ve made the case for a psychoanalytically inspired ecologization of Fredric Jameson’s political symptomatology of culture here and here.)
We misperceive the nature of the world for the same reasons that we misperceive the nature of the self. Every social (and linguistic) order interpellates its members somewhat differently, but, over the course of humanity’s long history, most such orders have incorporated into that process some sense of responsibility to more-than-human entities or processes. In whatever way they were conceived — as spirits or divinities, or in terms of synthetic narrative or conceptual metaphors (life-force, the Way, the path, the four directions, etc.) — these have generally borne a crucial connection to what we now understand as ecology. Modern western capitalism has fragmented these relations, setting us up individually in relation to the products of a seemingly limitless marketplace, but leaving us collectively ecologically rudderless. So even if scientists, the empirical authorities of the day, tell us we’re fouling our habitat, we haven’t really figured out how to respond to that, at least not at the global levels where many of the symptoms occur.
This is why I’ve argued (for instance, in response to the object-oriented philosophers) that it’s the relational that humans, especially westerners, need to come to terms with, rather than the objectal. Commodity capitalism is very good at making us think that objects are real, and at projecting value into those objects so that they serve the needs of us individuals, even if they never quite manage to do that (which is, of course, the point). The effects of our actions, on the other hand, are systemic, relational effects, and we won’t understand them unless we come to a better understanding of how systems and relational ecologies work and of how we are thoroughly embedded within them.
At the same time, it’s the objects that haunt us: the refuse swirling around in the middle of the Pacific, the mountains of excreted e-waste, the stuff we send down our chutes, out our drains, off to the incinerator, the river, the ocean, the atmosphere — the black holes, out of sight and out of mind, from which we hope they never emerge. But when they do re-emerge, in our fantasies and nightmares, we tend to reify them as the Thing, a demon, a Host:
Contrary to what Levi Bryant and Graham Harman have sometimes argued, however, there’s no inherent reason why a well articulated, materially and socially grounded relationalism*, one that focuses on processes of emergence and actualization, with their various conditions, effects, and so on, should result in an ontology that cannot account for action or change. An ontology that focused only on relations, or on change, or for that matter only on objects (and I’m not suggesting that Graham’s or Levi’s philosophies do that), would be one-sided. But the point is to bring objects — more or less stable and persistent entities (assemblages, actors/actants, or whatever else a given ontological account takes them to be) — and relational processes together in a way that accounts for both stability and change, persistence and transformation, structure and agency, stubborn fact and creative advance (to use Whitehead’s terms).
Our consumptive, commodity-captivated and spectacle-enraptured society, has privileged the object over the process, the thing at the center of our attention over the relations that constitute it. This thing-centeredness isn’t surprising: it’s an effect of the human perceptual apparatus, with its heavy reliance on vision, a sensory modality that shows clear edges to objects and that facilitates distanced observation and predation. (That argument can be taken too far — eyes, after all, are also the communicative soul of intersubjectivity — but there is something to it.) Where traditional cultures tended to de-emphasize the visual in favor of the auditory/multisensorial, the narrative, and the relational, societies like ours — ecologically and historically disembedded (in the sense that Polanyi describes the effects of capitalism), fragmented/individualized, and intensely visually mediated — push the ontological objectivism, literally the “thing-ism,” about as far as it can go.
While, as Harman has noted, recent western philosophers have destabilized this objectivism in various ways — Wittgenstein and Derrida with language, Foucault with knowledge, and so on — no one has successfully done it with the world as a whole, in a way that would persuasively articulate a fundamentally relational metaphysics that would be relational all the way down, extending, among other things, across the nature-culture and mind-matter divides. (The relational natural sciences, like ecology, have very little to say about “mind” or even culture.) When Harman or Bryant suggest that relationalism is incoherent, I presume that they mean one that makes no distinctions between different kinds of relations — different in speed, scope, intensity, direction, etc. That would be like an object-oriented ontology that made no distinctions between different kinds of objects. If entities are, as relationalists claim, constituted by their internal and external relations, the important thing is to determine what kinds of relations these are, how they mesh together (into what kinds of assemblages and networks, meshworks and hierarchies, etc.), what kinds of orders or patterns these constitute, and — crucially for politics and for ethics — what kinds of openings for action and change they make available for those, like us, who are implicated within them, and what kinds of openings are enabled or foreclosed for others by our actions.
Whitehead tried to develop a relational ontology that recognized the persistence of stable entities, but that understood creativity to be the heart of the whole process. Latour, who I take to be very much a relationalist, also provides very useful conceptual tools for a “relationalism all the way down,” though Harman’s account of Latour accentuates his defense of things (which is part of his project of deconstructing the nature-culture and mind-matter dualities) over his interest in network-building and cosmopolitics (which are relational in nature). From my angle of vision, the most ambitious conceptual work being done in this direction by contemporary Anglophone theorists is by Deleuzians (DeLanda, Protevi, Connolly, Bennett, et al), Whiteheadians (and Whiteheadian Deleuzians like Shaviro and Stengers), biosemioticians (since semiosis, a la Peirce, Bateson, Sebeok, and Hoffmeyer, is a relational process that occurs “all the way down”), actor-network theorists and socio-natural relationists (like Whatmore, Massey, Castree, Thrift, Hinchliffe, Harvey, et al), and others whose central preoccupation is with the different kinds of relational processes that make up the world.
One of the reasons why relationism doesn’t have to wash out into a blurred continuum of undifferentiated difference (or identity) is because we ourselves are relational, and we know from our own experience that experience itself consists of an interiority and an exteriority, a “dipolarity” as Whitehead put it, with the first (interiority) being the locus of our own responsiveness and agency. Now that we’re getting beyond the idea that humans are the only ones with interiority, and therefore with agency, we can recognize that all sentient creatures are worlded, umwelt-dwelling beings. If we let our umwelts (perceived worlds) close in on us, the Real — the relational stuff that constitutes our worlds — will elude us, haunt us (in its seeming absence), and eventually smash us. The haunting — the indications that something is amiss — is the gap that fails to signify. But semiosis, meaning, understanding, is there to be found if we’re willing to look for it — in the space junk, the dark flow, the wagging tail trailing behind us.
*(Trivial terminological question: which is better, “relationism” or “relationalism”? The latter seems a little more common, including among Heideggerians, Deweyan pragmatists, Asian field-theorists (like the ontic relationalism of Kaipayil), and even theoretical physicists, but the former is used as well. I tend to use the term “process-relational ontology,” and then to pepper its description with hybrid qualifiers like “material-semiotic” to make clear that the relations entangle both ends of what are conventionally thought of as the “material” and the “ideal.”)